Mimetic Desire in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy

By Packer, Matthew J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Mimetic Desire in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy


Packer, Matthew J., Papers on Language & Literature


Midway through reading U.S.A., Sartre declared John Dos Passos "the greatest living writer of our time." Other contemporaries, including Faulkner and Hemingway, similarly praised the novelist and admired the innovative style and sheer scope of the U.S.A. trilogy, (1) which for its detailed panorama of the early twentieth century remains among the most ambitious of American novels. But the long decline of the author's career is today equally famous. "After the 1940s," Michael Denning notes, "no one argued about Dos Passos" (166). Many critics point to the writer's later years of poorer work; some to the wide swing of his politics from the far left to the far right--although the latter is simplistic, for it neglects the fact, as George Monteiro explains, "neither conservatives nor leftists of any stripe, from the 1950s to our own day have been able or willing to restore to U.S.A. the esteem and widespread approval accorded Dos Passos's major achievement in the 1930s" (320). Critics certainly in recent decades have tried to put the writer's reputation back together again: a special edition of Twentieth Century Views (Dos Passos [1975]) republished the original reviews of the major work (including those by Sartre, Cowley, Wilson, McLuhan and Trilling), and there have since been numerous monographs and the major biographies by Virginia Spencer Carr and Townsend Ludington, the latter also editing the letters and diaries. Never out of print (attesting to a continuous readership), U.S.A. has actually been reissued (by the Library of America [1996]) and added to college reading lists. But the strange and fragmented modernist style of the trilogy itself has remained a puzzle--one the following discussion attempts to solve in terms of mimetic desire.

Two particular problems lie at the center of U.S.A. criticism. The first of these Sartre has attributed to the technique of Dos Passos, which presents fictional characters as though in "still life," sealed beneath sheets of glass: the novelist's style is notoriously resistant to interpretation. Sartre points to the curious aim the author has in U.S.A.:

[Dos Passos] wants to show us this world, our own, to show it only, without explanations or comment. There are no revelations. [...] We have already seen everything he wants to show us, and, so it seems at first glance, seen it exactly as he wants us to see it. (168)

The effect of Dos Passos's aim is that the fictional lives and business in the novel seem petrified; they are stifled lives the reader also finds unbearable. Sartre contends Dos Passos presents such unrelieved stifling precisely so his reader then rebels against these characters' destinies (conditioned by capitalism) and that Dos Passos hereby achieves his purpose. While Sartre is clear about the politics of U.S.A.'s style, though, he fails to examine the novel's psychology, even as he at least suggests the general predicament concerning its characters at large can be explained in terms of mimesis. Sartre observes that

Acts, emotions, and ideas suddenly settle within a character, make themselves at home and then disappear without his having to say much in the matter. You cannot say he submits to them. He experiences them. There seems to be no law governing them. (170)

On the contrary, a form of meta-commentary on U.S.A. can be provided by a psychology of mimetic desire: Dos Passos's characters' acts, emotions, and ideas are indeed governed by a "law," whose current neglect by critical theory warrants a brief review.

Rene Girard explores the psychology of mimesis extensively in several studies, beginning with Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1965), which explains how "triangular" desire operates in works by Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust. Mimetic, triangular desire, Girard explains, is the desire for an object that a character copies or adopts from another model character's desire for the same object--the structure of the relationship between (1) the subject, (2) the model, and (3) the object forming a triangle.

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